About the Author: Mr. Evan G. Reade is the U.S. Consul General in Strasbourg
France last week witnessed the violent end to a spasm of terror that had gripped the country for eleven days. It began on March 11 in Toulouse, when a single figure riding a motorbike shot a uniformed French soldier. At first, it was dismissed as a “normal”, albeit sad crime.
Perhaps someone was just settling a personal score. But still, some thought, what if there were more to it? Was it possible the soldier was shot because of the uniform he was wearing, and not because of who he was? That question was quickly answered, when four days later, in nearby Montauban the killer struck again. This time his targets were three more soldiers, sitting at a cafe, and when he was finished, two were dead, their colleague gravely wounded. A sense of urgency began to spread in the south. What were the killer’s motives? Would he strike again?
The answers became terrifyingly and tragically clear on March 19, when the assassin struck at a Jewish school in Toulouse, cold-bloodedly gunning down seven small children and several of their adult teachers. In the end, a 30 year-old rabbi and his two children, ages 4 and 5, and the 8-year-old daughter of the school’s principal lay dead, and four others were wounded.
Simultaneously, two fears began to spread. First, when and where would the killer strike again? It was taken as a given that he would. Second, it was now becoming clear that this beast was not a common criminal, but a terrorist who attacked military units which had served in Afghanistan and – inconceivably – innocent children because of their religion. What if the killer was a Moslem? What would this mean for interethnic relations? How would it effect the ongoing Presidential campaign? Could the actions of this terrorist have a long-term impact on all of France?
The French authorities launched the largest manhunt the country had seen in decades and before long had identified a suspect, who was quickly cornered in his apartment in Toulouse. When the drama was over, five additional police officers had been wounded, and the suspect, a 23 year old Frenchman of Algerian descent, was dead. I will never forget that day of drama in France, where the televisions were simultaneously showing three dramatic scenes as they unfolded: the siege in Toulouse; the wrenching funeral in Jerusalem of those killed at the Jewish school; and a solemn and windswept official funeral taking place in Montauban for the three slain soldiers, President Sarkozy and most of the major Presidential candidates standing stoically in the wind. But some questions had been answered, even while many more were being asked. Yes, the gunman was a Moslem; yes, he had been radicalized and had received terrorist training abroad; and yes, he had chosen and attacked his victims as acts of ethnic, religious and political violence. But what would the impact of all this be on France?
It may take a long time to answer some of these questions, but in Alsace, one thing is clear. The gunman’s attempt to sow divisions between France’s ethnic and religious communities has failed. If anything, it has strengthened the ties between them. Everyone who knows France realizes that ethnic tensions exist, as they do everywhere. It would be naive to think otherwise. Yes, there are many disaffected youths from North African countries who feel that the odds are stacked against them, and that the outlook for their futures are not so bright. Yes, there are right-wing voices who whisper, even more loudly than in the recent past, about “other” religious or ethnic persuasions. But despite this, I sense a feeling of great hope for a better future for all. Let me tell you why.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of events that demonstrate clearly and unmistakably that diversity and tolerance are the hallmarks and future of France, not strife and divisions. On March 17, I attended the opening event of Mulhouse’s annual “rencontres de la diversite” week. I witnessed an inspiring show that featured talented and remarkable young performers and athletes from just about every imaginable age, ethnic, and religious group. The message was clear: “tolerance is the future, not exclusion; our diversity makes us a stronger, healthier, and more prosperous community.” This is the fourth year Mulhouse has hosted this event, and each year it gets bigger, better, and more inclusive. I congratulate Mayor Jean Rottner, deputy mayor Fatima Jenn, and all the producers, performers, and technicians who put on this fabulous display of unity.
Last Friday, I had the honor to attend a ceremony in the upscale Robertsau neighborhood of Strasbourg to commemorate the placing of the cornerstone for a new mosque and Islamic cultural center. The festive atmosphere was somewhat tempered by the recent tragic events, but the message of all the speakers – political and religious – was clear and unmistakable: France is a strong, tolerant nation, that will not let the acts of a single twisted madman sow discord and divisions. The Grand Rabbi of Strasbourg attended, as did the leaders of many other religious denominations, and a long moment of silence was observed for those who had died in the violence of last week. His message, and the message of Mohamed Moussaoui, President the French Council of the Muslim Faith was the same: we will not let violent men turn back the clock on our relations and our future.
The dedication of the mosque was just one example of the religious tolerance in the Alsace region of France. Three weeks ago, I visited the nearly completed Grand Mosque of Strasbourg, a beautiful new facility which, when completed in a few months, will be the second largest mosque in France. And last month, on February 6, 2012, the first publicly supported Muslim cemetery in France was opened in Strasbourg. Both these new mosques and the cemetery receive public support due to a unique set of local laws in Alsace and Moselle that, unlike the rest of France, still permit limited State support for religion. And all of these new facilities receive strong political support from across nearly the entire political spectrum.
Sadly, it is true there are still those who would question the concept of diversity and who seek to emphasize differences rather than shared values. In fact, there are “cultural” differences among different groups of people who come from different places. But these are threads of a colorful fabric that continue to make our modern societies more dynamic, more prosperous, and more democratic. There will always be voices of dissent. That is, after all, what democracy is all about. But it is clear to me that the loud voices of the overwhelming majority have been strengthened by the tragic events of Toulouse and that the message is clear: France rejects violence; it rejects divisions; it rejects exclusion. France embraces tolerance, diversity and democracy, and will continue to strive to perfect an admittedly imperfect world.
Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.
Our hearts go out to the victims of the terrible violence of the past few weeks, and to their families.
Evan G. Reade